Monday, June 30, 2014

I nSleibh ar an rí

Beidh mé ag dul o thuaidh aríst! Gach samraidh, iarraim a imithe mo abhaile. Is brea liom ag gabhail ar an turas go Califoirnea Thuas.

Is é a chúis a cur cuairt mo chairde Crios agus Bob in aice leis Naomh Crios. Ach, rachaidh beirt go Nua Sasana go hionduil gach samraidh acu a fheicéail an clann mór ó Bob, fós. Mar sin, ní bheidh siad a bheith a bhaile.

Áfach, beidh muid ag dul in aice leis Naomh Crios. Beidh Léna agus mise i nSleibh ar an rí (nó Monterey i Spáinnis ansiud. Is áit an-hiontach ar on Aigéan Ciúin ann.

Mar sin féin, tá ionad an-daor ann, go loighciúil. Beidh muid ag fanacht i Asilomar ag imeall An Trá Méaróg. Chuala mé go mbeadh an-deas ansin.

Beidh muid a fhoghlaim faoi an scriobhneoir Lawrence Durrell ar feadh sheiminéar leis fiche duine eile. Thabharfamuid caint faoi dhá beathaisnéisí air. D'iarr sé féin i gcónaí daoine na hÉireann, ach rugadh Larry san India agus rugadh i Londain roimh ina gcónaí sa Ghréig, Éigipt agus an Fhrainc.

At the mountain of the king

I will be going up north again! Each summer I try to get away from my home. I love to take a journey to Northern California.

The reason is to visit my friends Chris and Bob near Santa Cruz. But, the pair will go to New England as usual each summer for them to see the big family of Bob, still. Therefore, they will not be at home.

However we are going near Santa Cruz. Layne and myself will be up there in Monterey (the mountain of the king in Spanish). It's a very wonderful place on the Pacific Ocean there.

All the same it's a very expensive place, logically. We will be staying in Asilomar at the edge of Pebble Beach. I heard it's very pretty there. 

We will be learning about the writer Lawrence Durrell during a seminar with a group of twenty others. We will speak about two biographers of him. He always claimed he was one of the Irish, but Larry was born in India and raised in London before living in Greece, Egypt, and in France. (Grianghraf le/photo by Jackie Kokuashvili: Monterey Sunset/ Luí na gréine i nSleibh ar an rí)

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ian Mac Niven's "Lawrence Durrell: A Biography": Book Review

I read this immediately after another biography, also published in 1998, Gordon Bowker's "Through the Dark Labyrinth." Bowker, although constrained by Mac Niven's authorized version from quoting from Durrell's correspondence let alone his novels, nonetheless managed to provide insight into the troubled, determined talent who juggled a manic pace when creating intricate texts, a heavy work load earlier in his checkered career working for the British foreign service, and many, many women.

Starting with India as the key to Durrell's mentality, part of but apart from his British origins, searching for belonging beyond the usual borders, seeking hidden patterns in arcana, Mac Niven takes us through his years growing up in an Anglo-Indian, as Durrell preferred to label his downscale (by comparison at least with some British lording over the Jewel of the Crown) background, his schooling in London, his failure to summon up the effort to get into Cambridge, and his bohemianism. Already, via Hamlet's predicament, Durrell contemplated his "heraldic" theory, that two Hamlets existed, one bound in the here and now and another in a sort of Platonic (to me if not him) realm of forms and symbols. Henry Miller and Anais Nin encouraged him in this pursuit.

His arrival as a poet preceded his departure in 1938 with his first wife for Corfu, and his Greek ties grew strong. But his marital ones could slacken. His second wife, Eve or Yvette Cohen, daughter of a Tunisian Jewish father and a Ladino-Sephardic Turkish mother, with her ideal beauty, stimulated what would become Justine. Although he never thought he'd wind up in Egypt, a flight from the invading Nazis found him in first Cairo and then Alexandria. Mac Niven sums up its crossroads appeal well, while noting that Durrell's depiction of the port as a lascivious landscape takes much more from its WWII brothels than its pre-war, more Greek and Italian, sedate character for what was then a compact city of 750,000. Certainly, in the Alexandria Quartet the city turned its own symbolic terrain, brought to life, if a dusky and detached, aesthetic and literary, form of its own. Mac Niven emphasizes how this novel was written in the mid-1950s, on insurgent Cyprus (after diplomatic assignments to postwar Rhodes, Argentina, and Yugoslavia), while his marriage to Justine crumbled.

But, Mac Niven offers very little coverage of the novels themselves that made his fame, or their critical reception. His details about the writer provide the data, and this data, as said before, can answer probably many questions readers have, but still this book, aiming not at a critique of his texts but a presentation of their author, serves its purpose, leaving explication and reader reception to others. We do get nods to the four-dimensional quality and its purported application of relativity, its time-based and space-based novel arrangement, and its ties to letting go of the ego and welcoming death. This facet, a turn from Christian-based or earlier European fiction, may portend the drift, in his later Avignon Quintet, to a more Buddhist-based approach, where characters appear and revive, freer of chronological convention or indeed, verisimilitude. This enchanted some and maddened other readers. Durrell tried to leap past material limitations in his work, but it seems to stay blurred and off-kilter. While Mac Niven does not take on the issue of if his novels will last, he looks at Durrell's travel writing and poems, and provides at least an overview of the works, if again, no real analyses.

Mac Niven provides about five times, it often seems, the information on any incident discussed by Bowker. For instance, Durrell's teaching stint at Caltech gains by a description of where he stayed, what he lectured upon, and what car he even drove on Los Angeles' freeways. Some may, however, wonder if such depth is necessary for a reader curious but not determined to find out every detail. Such biographies, full of documentation, as Mac Niven offers serve a scholarly purpose, as the go-to work to be consulted by students of his subject. But for general readers, Bowker, at a few hundred fewer pages, with his own array of sources, may suffice. The value of both works, to me, is evident.

The issue of his conflicted daughter, Sappho, her claims of incest by her father, and her eventual suicide, receives a judgment of relying on the discredited "recovered memories" treatment once in vogue, in Mac Niven's estimation. He shows in a poignant scene his own day spent looking at photos of her in the company of the grieving father, and he laments his failure to help his daughter more.

Durrell, in conclusion, does wonder as an aside if his work will endure. Late in his life, he seems to wonder, in his South of France retreat, if any one will listen to his admonitions that appeal in his final works to "selflessness and non-possession" and with this, one closes this in-depth study of this author.
(Amazon US 5-14-14)

Friday, June 27, 2014

Gordon Bowker's "Through the Dark Labyrinth": Book Review

Having finished this biographer's 2012 study of James Joyce, I was curious if Lawrence Durrell, less heralded now than half a century ago, certainly, merited the same steady if detailed life survey Bowker applied to the Irish innovator. Durrell's contribution, as attempting to integrate an Einstein-derived, relativistic series of levels from which to examine what, in the start of his most famous novel, Justine, Freud avers are the four people present when a couple couples, seems to me at a distance rather musty, and The Alexandria Quartet appears more of series of hothouse flowers, in characters and sultry ambiance. Arguably, the author's wanderings, writings, and self-importance make him a worthwhile subject for Bowker's scrutiny.

Hobbled as Ian Mac Niven's even longer authorized biography then in the making prevented Bowker from citing from Durrell's correspondence let alone his works, Through the Dark Labyrinth--similar to his Joyce take--breaks little new ground. But Bowker despite his handicap tackles the remarkably self-involved Durrell with sympathy if not forgiveness, although the biographer to me remains largely polite and well-behaved when describing the affairs, abandonments, and amours of this dedicated lothario. His preference, given if not romanticized "Tibetan" origins given some general proximity to the Himalayas from his Indian birthplace to an English father and Irish-descended mother, for the warmer climes and the less restrictive mores they supposedly engender, is clear. "Pudding Island" as his ancestral homeland and the place where he is sent for school as a boy remains detested, although he repaired there often over his career. A bohemian, he failed to master the math to get him into Cambridge. He chose to hang out in London, befriend Henry Miller, and cultivate connections, as a poet and then novelist, in the 1930s. As war loomed, Greece appealed, and it was off to Corfu.

The Nazi invasion barely avoided, he fled to Alexandria, to cobble together a career as a sort-of spy, information officer, propagandist, and British diplomatic such-and-such, there and in postwar Greece and Cyprus. In the latter, he found himself entangled as the colonial power Britain exerted weakened under the pressure for ties to Greece, and Durrell had to flee, again, as violence over land broke out.

Bowker shows how Alexandria provided, as well as Durrell's beloved and adopted Greek nation, the setting that inspired him. Then more Greek-British-Jewish and much smaller than today's Egyptian sprawl, the city served as a natural crossroads and an erotic cauldron. Modernism meets Freud, as spirals rather than linear narrative arrive to plunge a reader into breakdown--the one aspect Durrell complained to T.S. Eliot that he wished he'd have experienced (as he had with his first if lesser success, The Black Book) to add verisimilitude. But his failed second marriage to Eve Cohen, the Sephardic beauty who provoked the novel, provided his own anxieties, although never for long. He seems selfish, letting go as he outgrows his wives and a little daughter, she twice set aside. Bowker does not editorialize much, but he mentions how Henry Miller saw women as an "aperture" and later alludes to Durrell's take on women as less than persons and more general laws or biological urges.

The Atlantic complained how his "characters embraced with the cool click of algebraic equations." The haste in which he wrote the three installments to come shows he worked out his Quartet as he went, rather than starting in the first novel with a solid structure. Balthazar in six weeks, finds Durrell "feeling his way forward." Mountolive took two months, Clea eight weeks, he attested. This looseness may however have worked to his favor, for what Bowker sums up in the insighful, valedictory, final chapter of this biography as an achievement where we care less about the fates of the characters (his friend Diana Gould Mehunin complained of their coldness even and especially when sex was asserted as the main energy in these novels, and his others, after all) but we learn about the role destiny plays, and how we may reinvent ourselves, remaking our reality and our perceptions.

For all his indulgences as an intellectual, Durrell appears rather lightweight, preferring the effusions of what the nascent counterculture might cotton onto as gurus, seers, New Age exponents, or what some call today life coaches, for his nebulous or scattered musings. Granted, his main diversions in these years were sex and sunbathing, but he did manage fourteen-hour days often, parallel to careers on and off, working away on the next book. Certainly his knack for Greek, his fluency in French, his ability for sussing out the natives around the Mediterranean, speak to his skill at depicting his setting.

This setting shifted to Languedoc, after the success of the Quartet brought him fame and many more women to woo. The nature of his relationship with his troubled daughter Sappho, and her claims (Bowker weighing them decides innocent until proven guilty on Durrell's behalf) of incest clouded his later years; she eventually hanged herself. His third marriage appeared his happiest; his fourth demonstrated his brutality. Bowker alludes to Durrell's admiration for Sade (whom he refers to as de Sade; he also misspells MacNiven's name and makes a few minor errors throughout in proper nouns), and the appeal Durrell exerted over women up to his death in 1990 must prove the triumph of a certain charm, given his short stature, increasing portliness, and large nose. He turned his friends into fiction, and many complained. The women he seduced rarely returned for more. He tends to be a cad.

However, he softened as yoga and Buddhism--when a Tibetan monastery was established near his rural retreat--taught him the value of patience. He avers how reincarnation made more sense, living a life over and over until it was perfect, and the monks claim he has been reborn as a vineyard keeper in Burgundy. Bowker, in spite of the limits under which this was written, provides a thoughtful overview of Durrell. It can bog down in minutiae even as some parts skim; for instance, he goes to Israel and visits a kibbutz, but that's all we learn, while other times we find out what he had for dinner with such-and-such, time and time again. This may be due to the archival access he was granted, and in the end, Bowker does the best he can, digging into many sources, interviewing many, about Durrell
(Amazon US 5-13-14)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Lawrence Durrell: the best Internet links

Here's the best URLs I could find on Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. The sites I've appended (all but Trueheart's 2007 commemoration fifty years after the AQ) have appeared to mark his birth centenary in 2012 since the "Inventions of Spring" site below was compiled. No annotated reading guide in detail seems to exist online (or in print); neither wiki nor reader-friendly site serves AQ readers. Pat Harrigan's site, to which I've contributed these URLs and where they're posted elegantly (along with useful links to the Johnston College Buffalo Books FB project and to Amazon on LD) may assist collaborative readers, on or off the Net. See the Durrell Society and, focusing too on brother Gerald, a Corfu summer school.

One of the "workpoints" appended to Justine directs us to AQ's orientation. "Pursewarden on the ‘n-dimensional novel’ trilogy: ‘The narrative momentum forward is counter-sprung by references backwards in time, giving the impression of a book which is not travelling from a to b but standing above time and turning slowly on its own axis to comprehend the whole pattern. Things do not all lead forward to other things: some lead backwards to things which have passed. A marriage of past and present with the flying multiplicity of the future racing towards one. Anyway, that was my idea.’…"
Inventions of Spring

 (I've corrected a link from the above to) Charles Trueheart. "A Seductive Spectacle." The American Scholar
Jim Crace: "Book of a Lifetime" The Independent

Joanna Hodgkin: "Lawrence Durrell at 100" (podcast).  The Guardian

 Tim Marlow: "Lawrence Durrell: Forgetting a Revolutionary" (podcast). BBC 

 Jan Morris: "Rereading Lawrence Durrell"  The Guardian

Penguin Reading Guide for Justine

Photo: The hardcover originals are famed for their striking iconography (seen on the Harrigan site) but I also like these Pocket Books Cardinal vintage paperbacks, which have their own period charm with the faces/veils of exotic protagonists. Today's Penguins can't compete: dull vistas, blah fonts, self-consciously oblique angles.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Brian Jonestown Massacre's "A Revelation": Music Review

Album number fourteen finds the singer-songwriter-musician equivalent to his band, for most of these thirteen tracks feature only Anton James Newcombe. Relocated to Berlin, this finds The Brian Jonestown Massacre hearkening back to their fine full-length 1995 debut, Methodrone, which was full of shoegaze-inspired guitars, immersed in drones and doom, but as catchy as it was somber. This knack for combining the sour with the sweet sustains A Revelation.

Twenty years on, Newcombe continues to pay homage to psychedelic and glam stylings, deepened by post-punk departures from sunnier climes into darker chambers. In homage to his German residence, "Vad Hande Med Dem?" opens with a lively Krautrock beat, enhanced by Newcombe's dry, crackling production. "What You Isn't" offers the usual shamble that BJM fans will recognize, but this is a tighter album than some from the past decade, perhaps due to Newcombe's rehabilitation and recovery from the addictions which had gained him notoriety. John Lennon gets a nod in the styles of "Unknown" while "Memory Camp" shuffles the space-rock influences of early BJM in a lazy melody.

Shimmering and percussive, "Days, Weeks, and Moths" lives up to that clever title with a thicker, redolent sheen of glimmer and flickers. Wandering off, banging back, "Duck and Cover" again delivers a song that sounds like its name. "Food for Clouds" wafts up with horns added, but this tune doesn't shake off the blahs. Better is the Eastern European-inflected acoustic layers of flutes and plucked strings in "Second Sighting"; "Memorymix" doesn't add much beyond filler, unfortunately.

The last third of the album shifts pace. Processed drums and dance beats in "Fist Full of Bees" signal Newcombe's attempt to stay current, but as with much of this album, even this move feels a jump back to post-punk, fifteen years before BJM's releases began. Similarly, the jangling dirge in the guitar-heavy "Nightbird" proves respectable, if not revelatory. "Xibalba" reminds me of Echo and the Bunnymen with a vocal reminiscent of Ian McCulloch, and a looser feel to the song's baggier rhythm.

Concluding, "Goodbye (Butterfly)", revives the mood with "da-da-da" backing vocals and another Echo-ish rocker which whooshes along. A Revelation documents a steady holding pattern for Newcombe and his sometime mates in this version of The Brian Jonestown Massacre. When a band, dominated by a frontman, undergoes so many lineup changes only the founder remains, this often signals creative decline. Newcombe, encouragingly, has turned his career around from the dead-end fans feared, and while this may sound more like home studio two years of tracks solo project it is than a band effort, it will satisfy those who have stuck with BJM over the past twenty years, and it seems, will for as long as Newcombe keeps making records, more modest than before, but crafted. (Amazon US 5-26-14 and to PopMatters 6-11-14)

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Therapy?'s "Troublegum" + "Infernal Love": Music Review

cover artThese paired re-releases from 1994 and 1995 feature the best moments of this Irish trio. Therapy? combined the aggression of Killing Joke with the riffs of Metallica, and the concision of Nirvana with the catchy appeal of Husker Du. Having suffered the familiar fates of line-up changes, musical differences, and label mergers, the band soldier on.These deluxe editions may draw in new fans now.

"Troublegum" broke free from the grungy muck of their earlier indie releases. Chris Sheldon's production (as with Butch Vig's for Nirvana) ranks him as an equal to the industrial-punk-metal pound and punch this record delivers. Michael McKeegan's bass and Fyfe Ewing's drums solidly support leader Andy Cairns. His sneers and shouts dominate, and his knack for memorable riffs and clever lyrical fragments widens the band's appeal as songs drill down while their volume pumps up.

It's remarkable how consistently the first eight songs in this well-sequenced album stalk the stage where arena-rock metal meets pub-dive punk. Sheldon's production matches the grittiness of Cairns' jaundiced world-view to the band's ear for punchy rhythms that last a few minutes and then scamper away, ready for the next track to enter to throw its sonic weight around in the pugilistic mood here.

"Knives" opens with Cairns' growling: "My girlfriend says that I need help. My boyfriend says I'd be better off dead." The pummeling commences. "Screamager", an earlier single reprised here, represents their best moments, with Cairns' swirling guitar introducing a put-down, of the singer or his subject, or both: "with a face like this, you won't break any hearts".

With "Hellbelly" efficiently churning on, "Jesus without the suffering" comprises the chorus of a stadium-ready anthem. "Stop It, You're Killing Me" marries the telegraphic patterns of Wire with the hard-rock of Judas Priest, indicative of key influences on the bonus disc's live covers. Another terse transmission hammers out into "Nowhere". This rivals the best songs from the first half of the 1990s with its compression into a few minutes of what feels endless and epic, or rushes by in seconds.

Similarly, the slight slowing down from this point on into "Die Laughing" reveals the intelligence behind this record's construction. Cairns' admits "I think I've gone insane" as the guitars descend upon him, the drums hesitate slightly, and the bass carries the singer down. Then, it shifts into higher gear, with more guitars whining and whirling over "lost in world with no reality". This might be cliched in many cases, but the confidence with which Therapy? grips its methods convinces you.

For a band from the North of Ireland, religious tensions suffuse lyrical fragments. "Don't belong in this world or the next one" asserts Cairns in an altered, less growling style. He chooses a half-croon, and the departure from the earlier screams and shouts demonstrates a proper emotional response. This song, however, lapses more than the previous tracks into a standard hard-rock style and while competent, one wonders if the band has worn out itself after the energy of what has preceded it.

A burst of "Trigger Inside" puts aside such doubts, and "I know how Jeffrey Dahmer feels" snaps the listener from the gloom, as the singer confesses his loneliness over a buzz-saw arrangement. "Lunacy Booth" challenges "Christ!" over and over: "Reveal yourself to me, like cheap pornography. Picking at my gills with promises of hell." Quite a pick-up line. 

Joy Division's "Isolation" gets suitable treatment, and the song blends with Therapy?'s approach well. Cairns lifts the original content from its dirge-like progression in the chorus, while returning to a mood akin to Ian Curtis's in earlier verses. This effectively pays homage to one of this band's mentors, while showing off their own interpretation as adapted for an industrial-hard rock fusion.

"Turn" broods about "barging into the presence of God," and reminds one of Bob Mould's solo efforts. "Femtex" introduces itself: "Masturbation saved my life." It continues: "You never smile when you make love." Gloom permeates "Unrequited" as the downward spiral continues. Guest cellist Martin McCarrick accentuates the sparer anguish of this song, which points in the direction of the next album. But first, or last, "Brainsaw" by its title conveys the general tone of "Troublegum."

A second disc offers live tracks. Along with alternative mixes and odds and ends from the band, covers of Judas Priest's "Breaking the Law" The Stranglers' "Nice 'n' Sleazy" Wire's "Reuters" The Membranes' "Tatty Seaside Town" and the blues standard "C.C. Rider" feature on the third disc.

 cover art

That range, evident by these choices, narrows on "Infernal Love". Turning to Belfast-born d.j. David Holmes for production, the trio throws away the big riffs and catchy choruses. While the lyrical darkness increases, the textures the band prefers enter as the title promises into blacker terrain.

"Epilepsy" signals this descent. Intricately locked guitars overlap Cairns' overlapping, squalling voices and buried gasps from Ewing's drums. McKeegan's bass wanders down the path to perdition. While the songs aren't that much longer than on their predecessor, they often feel turgid and sluggish.

"Stories" tries to be an anthem, but it can't resist introverted passages that wind into themselves. "Happy people have no story", the chorus insists. Piano opens "A Moment of Clarity" as the band alters its intensity for a troubled ballad, which recalls Metallica's slower tunes, or Guns 'n' Roses. 

Beyond its title, "Jude the Obscene" narrates the tale of a misfit but doesn't move much beyond "you trawled [?] your way through our grim school" in terms of a plotline of a bad education. Like much of this album, it's ambitious but rarely grips the listener as much as its predecessor. "Bowels of Love" boasts depth in Holmes' expansive control of its soundstage, but it plays out as homage to Nick Cave.

The songs keep getting darker. "Misery" begins with weapons fired, as it at least leaps into action. Drums clash, the bass responds, and the guitar finds a chord progression to dig into. But this would have been a b-side on "Troublegum", or found on one of its bonus discs, by comparison.

Nothing pleases Cairns on this album. "It's a beautiful day, but I don't see it that way", as "Bad Mother" confides. Still, its slightly hangdog beat, integrating a hint of reggae guitar warped into rock, shows its smarts by this arrangement. But the guitar stays restless, and wanders off the groove. The song stops in layered "you really mean it" phrases. Then industrialized dub enters, surprisingly.

By the eighth track of "Troublegum" the tension had sustained itself so long that a respite was needed. By contrast, by track eight, "Me vs. You" growls by processed vocals as the singer tries to reconcile himself with a lover. Again, a few minutes in, the song ends and studio noodling returns.

This might annoy more than it amuses, the second time running. "Loose" returns to Husker Du attitudes, with any negative vibrations offset by jauntier choruses above melodic power-riffs. "Let me try on your dress" ends this tune, for once showing a different side of the character Cairns inhabits.

Speaking of the Huskers, "Diane" earns its cover treatment with a spare grinding before McCarrick's cello plays out the score. Cairns manages to rally an almost wistful tone as he seeks to lure his prey.

"30 Seconds" takes seven times that long. It concludes "there is a light at the end of the tunnel" over and over, as the album succeeds in confounding whatever expectations its major label might have had for a popular follow-up to its radio-friendly and critically acclaimed companion in these two releases.

Acoustic versions, live tracks, and remixes fill a second bonus disc. The package, reviewed as MP3 files, may have other features not given me for preview. Whatever the format, the five discs total the bulk of what listeners unfamiliar with Therapy? will want to hear, and this repackaging, for all the promise and the peril of the paired albums, presents this fractious trio as they meant to be heard. (PopMatters 4-3-14)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Alan Warner's "Morvern Callar": Book Review

This 1995 debut novel should outlast the Spanish rave scene as I imagine it has the Walkman that Morvern Callar uses as the soundtrack of her life. The publisher's blurb sums up the gist of what Alan Warner takes on as a difficult challenge, matching the novel's spare form, relating her story in a nearly affectless tone in many parts to its content, the aftermath of His (unnamed) suicide and her decision to do away with that evidence on her kitchen floor--in the way of her warming pizza in the oven, after all.

Warner cuts to the essentials, without calling attention to his stark, numb style, to get us into Morvern's intensely limited perspective. It's not that she is mentally damaged, perhaps, as a Faulkner or Beckett protagonist may be, but she bears the impact of whatever has warped her to keep to such a limited routine. Gradually (some may overlook this), as she enters the natural realm nearby, and then on her two journeys to Spain, she seeks more descriptions to get across these new sensations, taken from the sea, snow, and sky.

Such phrases as wiping off blood with Christmas wrapping early on capture the mood. If that appeals, read on. I was often reminded of another novel from this time and place (neither that or this film version I've seen so far), Michel Faber's "Under the Skin." I admired that story's chilling, yet matter-of-fact portrayal of another cool female on the prowl in the same way I did Morvern. It's challenging for a male writer to enter the head of a female, and capture what this male reviewer imagines as true, and for Warner, to pare down the words used and images sustained, without caricature or stereotype. Repetition reigns, the same  "goldish" lighter, the same Silk Cuts smoked, the same slang, Scottish and speckled slightly with whatever this Strathclyde-set tale has kept from the dying Gaelic, as the neighbors in her doughty, drafty port town carry, each one, not their own name but an odd nickname.

The circular nature of the plot, twice off to Spain, twice back to Scotland, and the disjointed nature of the London visit and other events, fit Morvern's mental state, altered chemically. Parts of this seem to have originated as short stories, and the Spanish YouthMed icebreaker scene stands out for its black humor and cruel invention. A counterpart for this alienated commodification of flesh and cash, again from the same time period, would be the satirical depiction of the tourism industry in Michel Houllebecq's "Platform." But parts seem from stories stitched into longer portions, and one feels a bit of this fabrication. The drivers' test conclusion seems rather contrived, and the vague parts nearer the end, as in the London section, the retirement rant earlier of--and the news later given--Red Hanna, while true to Morvern's condition, don't move the story forward as much. For a short novel, parts felt elongated, and many incidents make you wonder why they were included. Not that they detract from the main story, but it's a digressive story and one you keep wondering about, with little fact to go on.

That may be Warner's intention. He creates a believable, perplexing inner voice for the narrator, and by keeping you trapped within her lack of affect, you are forced to stick with her no matter what. The final scene makes you wonder if a sequel awaits. It's artistic, but it's stripped down, and it stings you.
(Amazon US 5-20-14)

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Ag fhoghlaim Fraincis

Tá mé ag fhoghlaim Fraincis faoi láthair. Thósaigh mé nuair chuaigh Léna agus mise go Ceanada ar feadh fomhair seo caite. Bhí dith orm a thuiscint beagán ansin.

Mar sin, fhéic mé ar an Leabhar Aghaidh post le chara ag fhoghlaim Spainnis leis Duolingo. Ní chuala mé faoi seo riomh. Chuir mé an suíomh anseo. 

Tá mé ag dul go mall ann. Measaim go mbeadh ag gabhail suas céim amhain gach mí. Is féidir liom ceacht laethúil.

Insint an h-am, iarraidh faoi an h-aimsir, nó labhairt triu réamhfhocail: tá siad deacair. Níl easca a cloisint na fuaimeannaí, go fírinne. Ina theannta sin, bím ag obair a thuiscint nathannta cainte leis Duolingo.

Mar sin féin, is maith liom a dhéanamh dul chul cinn. Gan amhras, tá sé beag. Ach, beidh brea liom é nuair tús a chur Duolingo le Gaeilge an bhlian seo chugainn.

Learning French.

I am learning French lately. I started when Layne and myself went to Canada during last autumn. I wanted to learn a bit there.

Therefore, I saw on Facebook a post by a friend learning Spanish with Duolingo. I had not heard of this before. I accessed the site here.

I am going slowly. I reckon maybe getting up one level every month. I do a lesson daily.

Telling time, asking about the weather, or speaking through prepositions: these are difficult. It's not easy to hear the sounds, truly. Furthermore, I'm working to grasp idioms from Duolingo.

Nevertheless, I like making progress. No doubt, it's small. But, I will love it when Duolingo begins in Irish next year. (Grianghraf/photo: An Sionnach Fionn.)

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Kevin Birmingham's "The Most Dangerous Book": Review

Not a biography of its author but of his most famous novel, Kevin Birmingham's study of Ulysses emphasizes what nine decades and eight major biographies of James Joyce have not. The "rapture and pain" of its creator and his creation, this Harvard professor avers, energized its modernist impact. The Most Dangerous Book, therefore, skims past much of Joyce's by now exhaustively documented life, to saunter past some of his literary influences, and to connect Joyce vs. censorship to the new century's unrest.

While much is familiar to students of Joyce, Birmingham's endnotes attest to his archival research. He examines eye disease treatments, anti-Catholic tracts, and subversive newspapers, for instance, along with many Joycean contributions, standard and marginal, that help us understand this context. He writes with admirable directness. He efficiently guides readers through the difficulties for Hoyce and his supporters which loomed as the forces of censorship by the various state authorities fought those who challenged pieties and proprieties. For example, Birmingham fills in the early twentieth-century reactions to obscenity by depicting how Britain was under siege, according to the Crown forces, from a violent, bomb-throwing and knife-slashing faction with a dangerous radical ideology. Against this, Scotland Yard invested in the latest technology to keep Londoners safer. The culprits were suffragettes, and the counter-terrorist ploy was the department's purchase of their first camera.

How Joyce fits in, Birmingham shows, comes via not only his patron and inspiration Ezra Pound, as is well known, but by Dora Marsden, whose militant feminism radicalized Pound. In turn, Emma Goldman's anarchism squares off against the publisher of The Little Review, Margaret Anderson, to deepen the tension in the Vorticist (radical) and then the Egoist (apolitical) movements for artists. Pound wrote for that fledgling review, while patron John Quinn had boosted the Armory Show in Manhattan, a vanguard for the forces from the art world parallel to emerging talents within literature. Going beyond the Irish setting for the novel itself, this attention stirs up the ideological debates by which Joyce and his associates took up the protests and demands of their restive, brooding era.

Modernist magazines afforded writers a platform akin to today's blogosphere. Such bold support confirmed Joyce's resolve, as he joined his own "philosophical" anarchism to a "literary" form, in Birmingham's interpretation, to undermine the tyranny of a ruthless state. "Individuals were crushed by big ideas." Joyce countered by obscenity (as defined by the state) apparatus) to protest.

In Trieste, as the Great War broke out, Joyce began his big book, superimposing the Dublin he had left behind on an Homeric grid, and elaborating in increasingly experimental chapters and styles of prose, his take on ancient myth reborn in his home city. Birmingham finds that Ulysses opens with choppy, fragmentary rhythms of conscious awareness. These ebb and flow, as if "a rusty boot briefly washed ashore before the tide reclaims it." As the novel in progress was serialized in the little magazines, large forces grouped against its supposed obscenity, and part two narrates the showdown.

Fearful of Reds and Germans, before the FBI as we know it now, the vigilant U.S. Post Office clamped down on any material deemed dangerous. Joyce's anarchy might be far more philosophical than overtly political, but it fell into the net cast by the Federal trawlers in the wake of the Espionage Act. Birmingham connects the Comstock Law and nineteenth-century jitters about pornography to twentieth-century unease over radicalism: Joyce's work-in-progress appeared to violate restrictions against lewdness in the U.S. Mail, as sent to subscribers of The Little Review, whose editors had defended the reviled Emma Goldman. With Joyce's content flagged, its May1919 issue was banned.

Meanwhile, Harriet Weaver had also been serializing the novel, in The Egoist. T.S. Eliot through Pound and Virginia Weaver through Weaver begin to pay attention to Joyce. They may also be some of the first readers as bewildered by its increasingly daring departures from conventional narrative as generations since--who after all have industrious scholars and encouraging interpreters to guide them. As Birmingham reminds us, Joyce sought to write not a story for a million readers, but one a single reader could read a million times. The playful prose burst forth as its author grew more confident. As the scholar finds in its subject, who began when writing erotic letters to his Nora Barnacle an entry into the "unwritten thoughts that go on in his mind," so Joyce treats "readers as if they were lovers."

Despite Joyce's painful eye surgeries (and see Gordon Bowker's 2012 biography for more of the "pain" that accompanies the "rapture" in Joyce's Parisian and Zurich years in exile as he labors on), success beckoned. In postwar Paris, the milieu of the novel's printing during the Lost Generation grounds it in the Left Bank's "café culture." But America, frightened by bombings, cracked down with a Red Scare. Ulysses would soon be linked not only with obscenity but to "parlor Bolshevism."

Anthony Comstock had fulminated against contraception in the mail, and his successor John Sumner, newly appointed to suppress vice on behalf of New York, extended his control over Red propaganda in The Masses and anarchist rabble-rousing to attack The Little Review for a salacious episode, Gerty MacDowell's "fireworks" on Sandymount Beach in what would be known as the Nausicaa chapter.

The New York City District Attorney's Office required John Quinn, a lawyer too, to mount a defense, but his disgust appears to have overwhelmed his earlier sympathies for Joyce and his disreputable companions. For, Quinn's reservations about the Nausicaa portion notwithstanding, he and Pound had tired of the "unreasonable" stance asserted by a Joyce whom, with his novel yet to be completed, refused to assuage the censors, while incurring legal costs and penalties nobody could easily resist.

"Greenwich Girl Editors" Anderson and Jane Heap were summoned against the State's charges of obscenity for their magazine's contents. Ironically, as Birmingham nudges the reader to remember, those on the stand seemed to have failed to notice that Leopold Bloom was masturbating as he watched Gerty during the fireworks on the strand. Or, they chose not to notice, if they were the editors of the passage. Typically daring, Joyce then rewrote it after the 1921 conviction of the magazine for distributing lascivious material in the mail, to highlight Bloom's surreptitious activity.

On the author's fortieth birthday early in 1922, Ulysses was published by Shakespeare and Company in Paris. Joyce could not stop fiddling with it. Even during temporary blindness a few months earlier as a time away from the manuscript, he kept tinkering mentally with refining its elaborate structures. With the novel out, more troubles rushed in, for now, the typos massed and worried him. But the revolutionary nature of it, which to us dims nearly a century later, cannot be denied: "It demanded complete freedom. It swept away all silences." Shattering verbal boundaries, it rises.

Ernest Hemingway, with perfect timing, enters Sylvia Beach's Parisian bookshop to assist smuggling the novel into the U.S., by way of his contact, Chicago socialist editor Barnet Braverman, who by 1922 under the restrictions of Red Raids had to work at an ad agency to get by. Joyce's patron Harriet Weaver, in London, founds the Egoist Press to print the novel. During 1922, the allure of a censored import, coming from London now and Paris, increases overseas demand for a forbidden book.

Then, the Port of New York authorities swooped in. Customs authorities in London did too. Eight editions followed, but distribution lagged due to censorship. Officials aiding a single copy's importation into America faced a fine of ten thousand dollars and up to ten years in prison. It took Bennett Cerf's Modern Library imprint at Random House--which marketed classics old and new to a discerning readership on campuses and after graduation-- to defend the novel in the U.S. The cover, shown on the cover of Birmingham's book, did not appear until 1934 after another legal battle. Random House took on not the Comstock Act but the Tariff Act prohibiting the importation of obscenity. One charge was easier to disprove in court than the many dangers the Comstock Act listed. Cerf , a wit and a pundit too in the quest (and indirectly his roguish predecessor whose corrupted "Paris" edition was used illegally in the U.S., the literary pirate Samuel Roth), finally triumphed.

Birmingham provides a lively, learned, yet accessible and welcoming survey of this struggle. He intersperses enough of the novel to orient readers, and he blends in the difficulties of Joyce's life as he weakened in vision and endurance, to prove the heroic nature of his artistic achievement despite his personal tetchiness. This may encourage readers to begin or return to Ulysses, their next book to read. (Amazon US 4-28-14 and with some editing and revamping 7-15-14 to Spectrum Culture)

Friday, June 13, 2014

Maebh Long's "Assembling Flann O'Brien": Book Review

This Irish writer combined Joyce's wordplay with Beckett's astringency. However, Brian O'Nolan chose to remain in the nation that his literary forebears fled. Under the guises of Myles na gCopaleen most famously, and eight others (one his given name) by which his fragmented narratives emanated in novels, journalism, and sketches, O'Nolan "assembled" his writing "as a performance of conjunction and interruption, quotation and pastiche". He resisted Ireland; it may have worn him out. His "anarchic and sprawling corpus of work" in Maebh Long's study merits the attention granted earlier to other Irish writers. Marshaling the academic's array of critical faculties and philosophical applications, Assembling Flann O'Brien neither reviews his life (see Anthony Cronin's 1989 biography No Laughing Matter) nor his works.

Judging others have completed these preliminary surveys, Long takes up each of O'Brien's major works topically. She expects readers will be familiar with each, so this is not a book for a beginner. She begins with the fragments comprising the intricate layers of At Swim-Two-Birds (1939; Joyce provided a blurb for it), which sends up medieval Irish-language tales, contemporary Irish identity, the writing of stories within stories, and digressions that delay any resolution of many sundered plots. It's more fun than Long's scholarly mien may betray, but as she shows, it ridicules the Catholic, Gaelic, republican, and patriotic notions of O'Brien's homeland as it struggled to make sense of nonsense, so abundant in this civil servant's scrupulous eye, as he wrote under one of many guises.

To take one of many "fragments of palimpsests", the novel satirizes the Irish Republic's obsession with procreation, but as O'Brien worked for the government and needed discretion, he subverts the official policies with a fictional scenario of rape, masturbation, non-procreative heterosexual sex, and grim marriage to skirt censorship while pretending to celebrate the values of his nation's prudery. Long focuses on eugenics and O'Brien's treatment of gender, subjects overlooked by many of his previous scholars and critics, who have concentrated on this novel's post-modern structure and wit. This section draws on Friedrich Schlegel, Jacques Derrida, Maurice Blanchot, Engels, and Nietzsche, indicative of the range and determination Long brings to place O'Brien within intellectual contexts.

That first novel preceded closely The Third Policeman, which while written in 1939-1940 was not published until 1968, two years after the author's death from alcoholism. "Desire and the death drive" repeat in uncanny, ghostly spaces and infernal circles in this repetitive tale. O'Brien's "modernist hell" keeps happening, as demonic power rather than divine fuels this dark energy, until the unnamed narrator's death cannot extricate him, "as a phantasm within himself". Jacques Lacan's split subject of the unconscious as a "no-thing" receives in this novel its representation. Freud and Slavoj Žižek  expound on the drives generating desire, in Long's reading fitting the narrator's and the narrative's pursuit of a black box. It contains "omnium" as an "unutterable substance" containing destruction, and a power rivaling that of God. Time, space, the libido, and eternity loom as the novel continues. So do bicycles and more rape, and while this short review cannot summarize this complex plot, Long follows its fearful deeds and mechanical revelations into a common experience of disappointment. "There is no tragedy in O'Nolan's works-- his heroes are both too blind and too self-involved." (90)

Repetition returns in O'Nolan's deft send-up of his nation's other, native (and technically "official") language, Irish, in which he was far more fluent than most of his Civil Service comrades (who had to prove an ability to use what many of them might secretly have despised but which quite a few idolized as a symbol of the Irish Republic's ethos). An Béal Bocht ("The Poor Mouth"; 1941; translated 1973). Long opens with Marx's quote about Hegel that history repeats "the first time as high tragedy, the second time as low farce". It's appropriate for a novel that savagely mocks the laments of poverty that Irish schoolchildren were made to study, accounts of real destitution, but by the time they were mandated as set-texts for the classroom, narratives that smacked more of sodden irrelevance than tragic immediacy. O'Brien in his columns titled Cruiskeen Lawn and this novel challenged the early 1940s attempt to revive an Irish Ireland that never had existed. Using a stage Irishman who himself never existed, "we begin in the midst of a cycle of rain, potatoes, hardship and lamentation". (109) The noble savage turns "reductio ad absurdam" as Irish life turns into hyperbole.

This is again complex material; Long links the Irish-language struggle for its own survival with O'Nolan's parody of this, with a well-known 1882 trial at Maamtrasna of an Irish-only speaker who was convicted of murder by an English-only judge and jury, and with Brian Friel's Translations drama. This chapter--which also addresses the tensions within the novel's English translation--flows more accessibly even if the Irish-language snippets are translated only in endnotes. This slight, subtle remove, on the other hand, reminds English-only readers today of the same gaps which the Irish nation continues to epitomize, between an idealized but racist past and a present with a threatened language that transmits much of its heritage and its identity, as its increasingly diverse citizens and immigrants create a multilingual within an English-dominant, globalized future there.

Women never had it well, it seems in this Ireland of fact or fiction, and The Hard Life (1962) captures the relegation legalized by the Irish Republic of women to domestic duties in its constitution. The vexed and vexing issue of Irish attitudes towards sexuality underlies or undermines this outlook. Long avers that "it is hardly surprising that the women and domestic spaces within O'Nolan's works are highly problematic, exhibiting a sustained, misogynistic distaste, escalating in The Hard Life to palpable disgust". (152) As that novel puts it: "They have only two uses for women, Father-- either go to bed with them or else thrash the life out of them". (qtd. 157) Urinating females earn their own sub-section, indicative of the detail applied in his columns and his fictions to O'Nolan's depictions. Long gives short shrift to any defense of him for his chauvinism, discrimination, and his xenophobia.

More misogyny returns, in the "archival fantasies" rummaged and raided for O'Nolan's final, but disordered and abstracted 1964 novel, The Dalkey Archive. Personally, I find its digressions and conversations sometimes intriguing, but critics justifiably rank it far inferior to both Swim and Third. From the latter novel, De Selby returns, and so do Joyce and St. Augustine, the two altered markedly.
Long maps out this final novel's ransacking of Third and its appropriation of Augustine for similarly strange purposes, as the mysteries of God and of life are plumbed, literally, by removing oxygen from the atmosphere, tellingly, to reveal the presence or absence of a Creator within time and space. Heady stuff for a short narrative; but as in the previous novel, so again: radical or "anarchival" change halts. 

After charting Brian O'Nolan's barbs against Jesuits and Joyceans, both targets for abundant satire, Maebh Long concludes her critique by recalling how this final novel "reveals not a single identity, but a man who, by dint of his own fixation with pseudonyms, is multiple and split. Brian O'Nolan is not a stable origin of a multitude, but a fragmentary host of a fragmentary corpus, at times brilliant, at times prosaic, but worthy of a place among the greats of the twentieth cent[ury], and the acclaim he desired and yet deprecated." (219) By elevating him this high, Long encourages more scholarship. Given O'Nolan and his sly guises, one however must wonder what this erudite satirist makes of this. (PopMatters 4-14-14)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

John Calder's "The Theology of Samuel Beckett": Book Review

As Beckett's British publisher, John Calder has much in common with his friend: a despair at human folly, disgust at our stupidity, and dismay at the God who won't go away despite our diligent efforts to flee or fight Him. Expanding his argument from The Philosophy of Samuel Beckett (2001), Calder refuses to reduce Beckett to an existentialist paragon, but for Calder, Beckett comes close: he's 99% of the way there. The difference lies in "perhaps"; that qualifier allows Beckett's persistent dismissal of the divine to keep its slight saving grace. For, Calder insists, one's loss of faith need not produce a loss of interest in God. Beckett shows us this obsession by his quest.

Pursuing this theme throughout Beckett's life and works, this very short study relies on familiarity with many decades of his oeuvre. Often, Calder skims over the texts themselves, assuming we can recall the actual scenes and quotes as well as he does. While aimed at those already engrossed in Beckett, and convinced that his and his subject's cold eye cast on his fellow humans and their purported Creator will be shared by their audience, Calder for all his fulminations against American triumphalism, religious fundamentalism, and capitalist (or socialist) indifference to environmentalism remains an accessible, if acerbic, guide to the highlights of Beckett's later work. Calder shifts his previous book's scope forward to Beckett's post-1960 period.

Analogous to Beethoven's career, Beckett, in Calder's model, shakes free of a dominant predecessor. He leaves behind imitation, fear, and anguish, to enter a spiritual stage that elevates the secular genius and liberates one's self. As Mozart, so for Joyce: the two B's had to outlive their mentors and forebears long enough to hear their own voices, and let them sing in works that still daunt today's audiences. Calder places both talents within a stoic, defiant stance against conformity and creators.

He begins by balancing Beckett in a dualistic stance, between "a nostalgic belief and the rejection of belief". After his marginalized early poetry and fiction, his harrowing period working for the French Resistance, and his fame after the prose trilogy and Waiting for Godot, Beckett drew the attention of academics whom Calder figures had exhausted the texts of Joyce. Leaving behind death and afterlife as explored in his works "in terms of childhood devotions", Beckett "invented his own afterlife in imagination". What this "agno-atheist" conjures up, for Calder, reveals Beckett's characteristic concerns revealed or evaded by ambiguity, defiance, resignation, hope, austerity, and pessimism.

While Calder seeks to explicate how Beckett channels his later concerns into his novella Ill Seen Ill Said (1981) and his prose piece Worstward Ho (1983), the depths of these ambiguous works, despite Calder's elucidation, remain occluded. He does not dredge these up out of their murky substrates to scrape off all their muck, but they dazzle him. The first has God destroy His creation all over again. The second plumbs evolution into dim eternity. Calder regards these overlooked texts with awe, chastising professors for ignoring them. One delves into creation's elimination, as God reverses His deeds; the other suggests Gnostic malevolence. The long shadow of Irish reaction to "dark" visions, Calder reasons, shrouded even later texts within themselves, as their creator refused full revelation.

God-like, Beckett in Calder's view retreats as did God in Genesis. Beckett's humor recedes, too, making these later, astringent writings less popular among academics. While from my own published research into the purgatorial and into the Buddhist traditions drawn upon by Beckett (enriched by the publication of his correspondence the past few years, which Calder draws upon now and then), the amount of direct gleanings seems slim, this reviewer agrees that Beckett clouded in suggestion many of his references. Reminding me of Shakespeare, ambiguity permeates Beckett's works, which evade facile explication. Calder in turn nods to not only the usual influences such as Dante's settings and Schopenhauer's indifferent but world-generating will here, but in passing (much less than the publisher's blurb lets on) to Milton and to Darwin. More research needs to be done to tease out these connections. Calder assumes nearly no scholars have applied religious contexts to Beckett, but again from my experience, this appears easily refutable from a fair scan of the voluminous concentration given over to the study of Beckett, who seems now to rival his predecessor Joyce in this regard.

Calder convinces, however, that Beckett applies Schopenhauer's ideal of a purposeless, amoral will unconsciously forcing all towards its emergence. Uncredited here, Thomas Hardy's musings of a similar generation of the universe by a dumb vegetable come to my mind. In terms of a non-theistic conception of how this slow, grumbling universe may rumble forth without a Creator, while Calder repeats his 2001 assertion that Murphy (1938) shows many Buddhist themes at work, he does not support this with any sustained examples from it. Beckett's recently published letters fail for me to provide any direct backup for this period as revealing specific Buddhist contexts for that novel.

Rather, his nod to Schopenhauer appears a likelier inspiration, for through that German philosopher in the early nineteenth century, a prototype of quasi-Buddhist concepts filtered into Europe, if in advance of scholarship that placed Buddhism more firmly in its proper setting. All the same, speaking of origins, as Calder reminds us, Beckett's pre-1950 fiction had not shaken off the impacts of his bourgeois Irish Protestant upbringing. His reluctance to do this had to wait until after his mother's death. Calder pulls out the ghostly presences she and others left in Beckett's mid-century writings. Alluding to his own conversations with Beckett, Calder implies this maturity was long delayed.

That freedom came late. Even in Beckett's long life, there was not much time for this to bear fruit. Calder harps upon the exigencies of any human's short span, and he laments the increasing fragmentation of knowledge in an Internet era enabling easier plagiarism, and less originality. His constant theme, one Calder emphasizes Beckett embodies, is the "enclosing of the enquiring mind in a small space". The loss of faith may be accepted logically, but not emotionally. In reticence, Beckett countered this lack with generosity and kindness in personal and often anonymous actions. Calder laments his friend's capitulation to coma and slow decline before his 1989 death, but Calder ends this thoughtful monograph affirming Beckett's affinity with Beethoven, aspiring toward a secular heaven. (PopMatters 4-10-14)

Monday, June 9, 2014

"The Otherworld: Music & Song from Irish Tradition": Review

Twenty years in the making and drawing from the National Folklore Collection’s musical and narrative archives stretching back nine decades, this inviting book presents the words and sounds of those who relate tales from the otherworld. Editors Ríonach uí Ógáin and Tom Sherlock define this expanse as ‘a domain relating to the preternatural, an alternative realm parallel to or sometimes beyond human earthly existence’.  Having visited it, glimpsed it, or heard music from it, people tell tales and play songs.

What they offer confronts the mystery of the world beyond, and it provides for many puzzled by loss or wearied by drudgery a chance to enter the imaginative sphere. The fantastic leaps out to pull in the wanderer, but it often repels or threatens those humans tempted or foolish enough to cross its border.

The results, compiled here with two CDs of forty stories and songs in both Irish and English, represent but a smidgen of the material at UCD, but they allow researchers and students to listen in on recordings, as well as to follow along with transcriptions and photographs which enrich this well-designed (by Red Dog) text.  Voices from all but Offaly, Derry, and Longford contribute individual and communal memories. The value of this edition rests in its thematic range and bilingual accessibility into this lore.

For instance, the juxtaposition of Irish and English, urban and rural, widens the perhaps expected territory investigated here. Told by Meg Doyle in Dublin’s Ringsend or Edward Kendellan in Stonybatter, the tale of the banshee (a popular choice for many interviewed) from 1980 balances out the preponderance of rural material collected as Gaeilge in earlier years. Following Doyle’s report, the famous fiddler Micho Russell from Doolin in Clare plays ‘The Banshee Reel’ as the text includes a photograph of a local holy well and a placename report (originally in Irish, translated) on a local hill associated with keening cats ‘wailing and shrieking’.

Séan Ó Catháin tells a legend of Petticoat Loose, who ‘among other crimes’ in Munster, ‘drowned a school master in Coilleagán and killed infants’. The action damning her was being drunk ‘and about to have a child’ while Sunday Mass was being said. It’s a bit confusing, but the haunting nature of such tales, perpetuated widely and doggedly, supports the popular warning of the fate of a ‘fallen woman’.

On the other hand, ‘Amhrán an Frag’ comically contrasts a frog’s entry across the domestic threshold (as told to the Conamara teller as if real) with an invented song by Peadar Ó Ceannabháin likening that intrusion to ‘the fight in the gap of the fort/ an troid a bhí I mBearna an Dúin’.  The mock-heroic, complete with the amphibian converted into a ‘mermaid’s husband dressed in women’s clothing’ conveys the manner in which the everyday inflates into the epic.

Fear, humor, and respect mingle in such reactions to the uncanny. Meeting the devil at the crossroads and learning a rousing tune, for example, can conjure up the clever retort of the human player confronted by the revelation from the next world.  Jigs stolen or learned from devious faeries repeat the prevalent notion that pipers suddenly appear among humans to play before vanishing as quickly. Máire Ní Bheirne of Teelin passes on such an account to Donegal collector Mícheál Ó Domhnaill in 1974, and from here, the reel ‘Tiúin an Phíobaire Sí’ passes (and takes on two more titles in English) into the repertoire of the group Altan, widening its audience and broadening the scope of the living tradition.

Also common and continuing today is the tacit admonition to those walking about not to enter the realm of those who often are given, for fear of summoning them or a curse, no name but ‘them’.  The widespread notion that metal and water protect the man or woman from the fate dangled by the fairy hosts or the attest to the enduring (and quietly persisting, or at least not denied) awareness of a mysterious presence hovering near farms and villages, in circles, forts, bushes, trees, or cairns.

Associations of venerable places with the otherworld fill many pages here, such as Fionnbhearra (Cnoc Meá near Athenry in Galway) and Áine (Cnoc Áine near Teelin in Donegal).  Most of Ireland is covered, and much of the past century. Collectors for the Folklore Commission, such as Tom Munnelly, Seán Ó hEochaidh, and Caoimhín Ó Danachair (who looks quite the indefatigable itinerant in his leather vest and pipe) garner credit as the predecessors to the current editors and their colleagues, who wrote down and taped such material. The compact discs show the results, originally on acetate disc, cassette, reel-to-reel tape, digital audio, minidisc, and memory sticks. While the technological progression proves the passing of time for its archivists, the variety of places the fieldwork was conducted reveals the way such material was gathered: in the fields, in a car, or at home.

Labeling this as tradition does not detract from its ongoing relevance. As the editors remind us, Tom Munnelly titled a paper ‘They’re there all the same’ when it came to the question of belief. Elusive or vague as Irish responses may continue to be when asked about the truth of ‘the good people’ or the banshee, the popularity of Samhain, bonfires, vampires, lotteries, and prophecy persists despite a purportedly secularised mindset today. One wonders after perusing these attractive pages and hearing the creaky fiddles or bold voices from the recent past what folklorists a century hence will say about us. (In pdf and online at: Estudios Irlandeses 9 (2014): 195-196)

Saturday, June 7, 2014

"Walter Potter's Curious World of Taxidermy": Book Review

"Anthropomorphic tableaux" entertained Victorian audiences; when I was at a 2001 revival of Victoriana at the Victoria and Albert Museum, I turned a corner of the crowded exhibit to find under glass a fantastic scene. Twenty stuffed cats, arranged in 1890, at "The Kitten's Wedding." I burst into laughter (a rare occurrence) and summoned my wife and sons (then at an impressionable age) to this must-see display. As we chortled, other museum goers looked at us and the display, askance, silent.

This anecdote illustrates the changes between the time that Walter Potter crafted hundreds of animals, amphibians, and birds into intricately assembled dioramas for the delight of his fellow Britons, and today's more uneasy reaction (well, for most people, perhaps) to taxidermy that so faithfully and eerily mimics our own rituals. Potter sought, from boyhood, to teach himself how to dramatize nature surrounding him in rural West Sussex. London-based taxidermy expert Pat Morris and Brooklyn curator of The Morbid Anatomy Library and Museum, Joanna Ebenstein, present an illustrated compendium of her photos and his brisk text to explain what we know now about Potter.

First of all, born in 1835 and dying in 1918, this naturalist was no relation to Beatrix Potter. Her own renderings of animals resemble strongly the real ones Walter gutted, stuffed, and wired, but the authors surmise that since Beatrix's first book did not appear until 1902, any supposed influence was from him to her, and not vice versa. As a lad, he "tamed jackdaws and taught pet starlings to speak". In his village of Bramble, he began to collect the critters who comprised a tourist attraction, aided by a local brewery who saw such marvels as "The Athletic Toads" as a draw for consumers of their ales.

How did Walter create his displays? He began with cardboard models "until suitable animals became available" as Morris and Ebenstein diplomatically phrase the reality. I preferred when seeing those wedded felines to pretend they were all lovingly resurrected from kittens who had passed away peacefully. While a similar fiction was perpetrated by the museum curators who succeeded Potter, the facts prove that the beasts and birds arrived in less placid ways. Visitors brought in birds killed by cats or found on roads. Surplus kittens from farm litters were put to death. Stillborn rabbits and, at Potter's own self-taught hand, rats and toads contributed to the skin and fur out of which he made art.

Nearly fifty rabbits crowd a village school, with classes on needlepoint, math, sewing, and writing. "The Death and Burial of Cock Robin" (as pop art pioneer Peter Blake comments upon in a preface) represents one of Potter's most ambitious efforts. It took him seven years of spare time to build up all the birds needed to play out this nursery rhyme's plot. Croquet and tea, squirrels at cards and rats at gambling, kingfishers within their underground lair, "The Babes in the Wood", "The House that Jack Built", and, fittingly or ironically, ferrets hunted by miniature figurines fill out the tableaux depicted.

Part two of this short book reveals the details of these tableaux. Unlike the one at the V+A, where the minutiae of the crowded ceremony could not be seen from a distance and under glass, the vivid color and captions help the reader envision Potter's meticulous attention better than a museum display may. For instance, the authors point out one blue-clad fellow. "This male cat looks disgruntled at the matrimonial proceedings. He once held a book open at the wrong page and glued to the stumps of his paws, but it is now lost." This passage verifies the next lesson of this book: the fate of this collection.

As part three tells, the museum at Bramble was sold in 1970. Moved first to nearby Brighton and then Arundel, next to faraway Cornwall, after 150 years the collection, having been turned down by the National Trust, was auctioned off. No purchaser summoned up the funds to keep it all intact. A few postcards, many showing the "freaks of nature" that also engrossed past audiences more than present, flesh out these curious contents of Walter Potter's now-scattered world, attesting to its eccentricities.

PopMatters 4-15-14; Walter Potter Taxidermy book site;  in shorter form 4-17-14 to Amazon for US version and British printing

Thursday, June 5, 2014

J.E.A. Tyler's "The Complete Tolkien Companion": Book Review

J.R.R. Tolkien's fantasy masterworks, as his fans in the 1960s learned from the appeal by the author on the back of the ubiquitous Ballantine paperbacks, were soon plagiarized by unscrupulous publishers at Ace. The massive amounts of notes and half-finished tales, edited by his son Christopher over the decades since the success of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, complicated the canon. Diligent guides such as Robert Foster's The Complete Guide to Middle-Earth, J.E.A. Tyler's The Tolkien Companion, and later Karen Wynn Fonstad's The Atlas of Middle-Earth themselves found "complete" a misnomer as compilers encountered the fragmentary prequels and sequels within the original Tolkien's archives published for an audience demanding more than The Silmarillion  and Unfinished Tales could provide half a generation after hippies sported buttons with "Frodo Lives."

This attenuated but diligent legacy, shared by the fantasies and their exegeses, demonstrates Tolkien's appeal. The Hobbit and LotR "core," as Tyler agrees in his introduction, endure as the heart of the body of work. This extended in the later twentieth century as Christopher Tolkien and colleagues restored in twelve volumes a Middle-Earth history. For Tyler, such efforts remain minor and tangential, as they often preceded the core texts, and left many areas half-explored, abandoned, or in contradiction to what the standard canon articulates. 

As a '60s musician turned rock publicist, author of The Beatles: An Illustrated Record and I Hate Rock and Roll, the late "Tony" Tyler might have agreed with the analogy of demo tapes and studio outtakes abandoned only to be resurrected and restored for a core audience desperate for every scrap from their heroes or idols. Only when the archival material was conceived or executed after the LotR publication, or when earlier manuscripts have influenced the genesis of Unfinished Tales or The Silmarillion does Tyler enter such data. Those two volumes contain the gist of what Tolkien continued to work on, sixty years in Middle-Earth, and left incomplete at his death in 1973. 

All the same, the publisher of this edition leaves it unclear how much this third release offers that adds up as truly new. This may be clever marketing, recalling that bedeviled Tolkien in his copyright battles with pulp publishers in New York in the 1960s. Intriguingly or ironically, this guidebook may spark similar confusion over what represents the author's final intentions, given a devoted fan base. 

Tyler's second edition (The New Tolkien Companion, 1979) added 1800 entries; we do not learn in this printing how many more definitions have been provided to his own, now posthumous, third edition. (Neither cover nor title page refer to this as such, but the foreword titles this accurately.) The date of the introduction for this "new" edition is not given, but Tyler died in 2006. He credits as appearing twenty-three years later (which corresponds to a roughly 2004 publication), due to popular demand, another revision incorporating what can be gleaned from the corpus, now quadrupled in size for him to digest from what in 1976 began as The Tolkien Companion (reissued 2000). Tyler defends as the ultimate source for his endeavor in his introduction (to this "Second St. Martin's-Griffin edition" listed on the copyright page as October 2012 to anticipate the release of Peter Jackson's first installment of The Hobbit on film, but seeming not to differ from an edition printed in 2004) his reliance on the "Master Volume": LotR

This seems a wise choice. Sharp-eyed readers of this book's identically titled 1976 debut turned to the first three entries and disagreed with each. The third, for instance, here has been corrected. "Edain" is translated as "The Sacred People" and not as "Friend-of-Man."

Another spot-check, in my copy of Foster, showed he prefers brevity, if partially to accommodate pagination references. Tyler avoids these. Texts refer to book and chapter in the few endnotes, making this more a work to be read for pleasure--given the entries full of dense detail and stately tone echo the source texts, understandably if rather boldly--than referred to for concordance or analysis. 

Maps prove scarce and may resist clarity; the Atlas mentioned above supersedes them. Charts fare better, thanks to a trade paperback format and larger fonts. While this uneven production makes for an arguably less helpful resource than Foster or Fonstad, Tyler's effort improves with a pleasant prose style and--despite his belated disclaimer for this third version--an underlying tone that relates Tolkien's vision as shrouded both in antiquity and a faint if evanescent presence barely traceable down to our own earth. While this may dismay purists insisting on separating fantasy from reality, it adds to the verisimilitude of Tyler's ambitious attempt to elucidate these core texts and their mythos.

Tyler's compendium, over seven hundred pages over its own wandering evolution in successive and revised editions, has gained mixed reactions from Tolkien's attentive coterie of critics. Whereas Foster's slightly shorter A-to-Z reference includes textual citations, Tyler's eschews these except for a handful of modest endnotes inserted after a chapter for each letter of the alphabet. Therefore, while Tyler's volume to me flows better, more fluidly taking the tales as if relating an existing if very distant chronicle of misty events in another age, it may annoy sticklers. 

All in all, from my perspective as a nearly lifelong admirer of Tolkien's masterworks, this encourages a return to them. While I lack expertise of the fact-checkers of these venerable, distilled, precise (pre-)modern myths, Tyler's good-natured acceptance of their genuine basis in a hint of real language, real territory, and real memory aligns with Tolkien's own intentions, and those necessarily expected from any reader entering Middle-Earth, where belief may be not suspended but rewarded. (Amazon US 10-9-12; PopMatters 10-18-12)

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ronald Hutton's "Pagan Britain": Book Review

This expert on past and present paganism revisits this topic, revising his 1991 survey of practices in the ancient British Isles to narrow it to Great Britain. He peers back thousands of years at rituals, monuments, and remains to surmise how people sought to connect with the sacred and the natural. Those two force-fields mingled in intricate ways, many of which may elude their stony, bony, material traces. Ronald Hutton, Professor of History at Bristol University, conveys an immense amount of scholarship in a cautious but lively manner. As with his previous books, he combines graceful prose with an awareness of the dangers of reducing this perplexing topic to romantic, lurid, or airy phrases.

Not that this factual compendium turns stodgy. While any serious presentation of such material means dry stretches will intervene, Hutton keeps a brisk pace. Endnotes pack a lot of references for scholars to pursue, but Hutton keeps his narrative academic yet accessible. The evidence being very limited for both prehistoric and early historic Britain, constraints emerge as scholars compete to advance their interpretations. Hutton shows readers frequently how current attitudes towards religion, immigration, feminism, and imperialism warp various theories applied to the archeological record, and how such an endeavor draws in diverse fields, so that scholars wind up discussing and debating across their typical divides.

Sometimes, bewilderment or enchantment seeps through Hutton's diligent recitals of digs and finds. Paleolithic images at Creswell Crags include in his captions "d) Shapes taken by some to be dancing women, and by others to be long-necked birds. e) So-called 'vulva' figures -- female genitalia or animal tracks, or something else altogether." These remind me of Borges' sly lists of Chinese marvels.

At Langdale Pikes, a remote Neolithic "factory" for stone in Cumbria's Lake District, Hutton allows us to glimpse the material and the spiritual as they blend. "The climb to the site is still long and hard, and anyone who makes it enters a world where wisps of clouds still drift along the surface of the land, and silence is usually absolute save for the voices of the wind and of thunder, and where pieces of rock, broken by frost or storm, come loose from their places and roll crashing down from the slopes of scree. It is a place where the majesty of stone is most evident, united with that of the heavens themselves." Such excursions are rare in this book, but necessary, for we view through a professor's eye the measured vision, in steady narration, the awe that accompanies so much analysis.

Stones shape into megaliths, dolmens, patterns. These by the New Stone Age after around 3000 BCE challenge conjectures that they paid homage to a Great Goddess, or that they stood for farmers who conquered hunters, or that they marked boundaries of sacred spaces and/or armed fortresses. Hutton weighs various arguments, but leans towards ambiguity. Often, the closer the evidence gets to the present-day technologies applied to interpret the traces, the less secure the previous theories become.

Even if much has vanished, the stones remain in henges and circles. So do hints of timber-circles and in tombs in turn, the slow pace of many millennia can be sensed. Systems may have been embedded very long in the British archipelago. The average Orkney Islands burial shrine held but eleven bodies over thirty to fifty generations, indicating those interred there must have been particularly favored. Avebury's stone henge was assembled over a thousand years; a Saxon-era village now surrounds it.

This antiquity attests to the wonder with which earlier Britons regarded these monuments. Its most famous site reveals prehistoric burials nearby by visitors from the Continent, marking its long fame. Stonehenge has been mythologized for at least the past nine centuries in writing, and it functions "as a mirror in which modern people can reflect and justify their own prejudices, ideals and expectations". For instance, the two most recent interpretations of Stonehenge neatly contradict each other. One proposes it as a place of magical stones and healing. The other regards it as a stony necropolis, balanced by a nearby gathering place which by its timber affirmed the powers of life.

For the next period, those doughty classifications of short, dark Neolithic inhabitants invaded by what archeologists termed on account of their imported pottery the Beaker People, and then tall, fair Celts who swept in from the Continent, meet their dismantling. Instead, genetic evidence traces trade across the North Atlantic and beyond, when smaller waves of immigrants--then as now--arrived to exchange goods, mate, and settle down with the islanders. Barrows with burials of bodies and bling faded as a warrior elite grew, and as their artifacts and cremated urns gained prestige in cemeteries.

These shifts cause some to attribute them to new beliefs, brought perhaps along with the new imports. Britain chilled, from its South of France ambiance, into Scandinavian levels of cold before resuming what is closer to today's weather. What emerged as its new set of "ritual practitioners" sparks dissent. Hutton in previous books has analyzed paganism then and now, and this Druid cult past and present.

He sums up these studies and balances them fairly against the counter-cultural champions of "avant-garde spirituality". Ley lines, astro-archeology, and earth mysteries emerge in the past few decades as the fringe battles the mainstream, and as science and magic square off in the press. Hutton explains that professors rarely rush to defend their archeological turf, as they face derision if correct and dismissal if their findings fail (as they will) to please those who ally with "poetic truth" instead. However, as his endnotes evoke, he graciously thanks many among these ranks for their contributions to widening the scope of scholarship, to take in sounds, colors, lines of sight, and mythic resonances.

Throughout Pagan Britain, Hutton places his own work within these "power politics of knowledge in the modern age" nimbly. He manages to reach out to mavericks whom most scholars ignore, while he advances mainstream scholarship. As an historian, he may be well placed, being slightly outside the archeological camp but trained in the analytical methods his own field shares, while being a fellow traveler who reports from the ranks of British iconoclasts, the unifying theme of his career's pursuit.

By late prehistory, whatever the former neat divisions of Bronze and Iron Ages now give way to, the ripples of the power that will be Rome enter Britain, perhaps as early as 400 BCE. While Julius Caesar will not land in Britannia to report on Druids until 55 BCE, goods and culture earlier shift far to the north of the Empire, as it comes closer. Outmoded conceptions of Celts as a triple threat of art, languages, and "race" as Hutton explains now adjust to a proto-European Union model, where whatever the continental peoples were before Rome, they seem to have possessed some common cultural elements to loosely unite many diverse nations. These presences, when excavated from land or water, may by a sensational media gain notoriety if the bodies of early Britons preserved in bogs as "Druid priests" or human sacrifices. Hutton knows too well the dangers of promoting sagas as fact. As with chalk figures still seen on hillsides, or Iron Age coinage, the evidence enduring creates its own problems of meaning, and figuring out what is sacred and what is secular eludes those who now try to decipher the "intractable nature" of evidence. But, one case cheered me as typical of this search.

Near my ancestral farmhouse, since the mid-1980s reverting to ruin in Ireland, stands what Hutton terms a "burnt mound" (fulacht fiadh in Irish eludes easy translation from "bloody-flesh spit for wild animals/deer"). These are found by the thousands across the archipelago, serving as the primitive equivalent of a hot tub. Professors long figured these were for heating stones to plop in to cook meat. Recently, some conjectured them as logically a place for not only feasting but, in damp weather, warming up in a sweat lodge tent; two scholars in Galway experimented with brewing barley ale via a modern mock-up. Hutton genially figures all three speculations, from evidence, meet his criteria. I dutifully add that a prosaic use has been posited, if less invigorating, just as necessary: doing laundry.

With the Romans, recognizable baths arrived, along with the historical record's advent. Yet debates over interpreting the depth of British adaptation of Roman ways continue over the evidence found of idols, inscriptions, and images from a presence that at its height numbered 55,000 troops and up to four times the amount of civilian support for that imperial occupation. Given headless corpses have been often interred, as Hutton shows, four plausible explanations can be conjectured for their presence. An image of a comely nude woman, escorted by two clad if somewhat stouter females, may be a Venus between two nymphs, or a Christian postulant readied for baptism by a pair of matrons. These examples testify to the difficulty of distinguishing native from Roman impacts on beliefs, a process accelerated in later centuries when Romanization had settled in enough to cause some to revert to a retro-paganism as Christianity began to rise, and later as legions withdrew from Britain.

This overlap between persisting Roman and nascent Christian practices, in a time of tumult during the fifth century, creates another difficult period for archeologists and historians to puzzle over. The records of what some would even then claim as the coming of dark ages reflect their Christian panic. All the same, two hundred years ensue in which the historical record, the economy, and the culture appear to have suffered dramatic cessation, as far as the British pagan legacy can be followed. For, while in the east a Germanic-Scandinavian paganism brought by invaders replaced it, this seems to have wiped out previous pagan practices. In the west of the island, descendants of the Roman colony adapted Christianity in its similarly Roman version, which appears to lack continuity with the Roman occupation, nevertheless. Discontinuity reigns: while the genetic and landscape evidence shows little sign of dramatic British change, the linguistic break from Latin and Celtic and the ethnic divisions persisting between Saxon and native run deep for many centuries after islanders convert to Christ.

While Arthurian fiction imagines shamans, wizards, and magic, Hutton remains firmly suspicious of any Anglo-Saxon presence for such "cunning men" persisting as pagan rather than as eventually Christian, and he repeats his research affirming the lack of any truly pagan practitioner of magic after the medieval acceptance of Christianity in Britain until the twentieth century, allowing for a few from inconclusive reports who may have been instead deluded or plain insane. Over a few centuries, the scattered redoubts of paganism surrendered to a relentless force. Pagan and Christian rulers fought over which petty or restive realm would be Christian or pagan; for a while, common people wavered back and forth, too. But while indigenous worship was rooted in the local, the Christian manifestation demanded elimination of any rivals, as "more aggressive, determined and monopolistic" a regime.

Yet, Hutton avers that medieval Christians conveyed four patterns that aligned with their pagan predecessors. Polytheism persisted by a cult of saints aligned to trades or holy wells, by a "provision of new figures who offered a parallel service". Ritual observances led to seasonal festivals, worship opened up spaces for female participation, and male priests kept presiding over sacrificial altars. But, there was no "continuing allegiance to the old deities in preference to Christ" even as rites, usages, ideas and festivals as "trace-elements" were absorbed into Christian and/or popular superstitions.

Herne the Hunter and Ceridwen as Mother Goddess appear, as "back-projections" of modern unease about progress or patriarchy, not pagan deities who have managed to elude 1500 years of Christian crackdown. Hutton examines the Green Man, sheela-na-gigs, labyrinths, hillside chalk giants, as he weighs this evidence for and against his position. Fair-minded but confident, Hutton strengthens his previous arguments which doubt what others have claimed when looking at these as manifestations of the pagan. These artifacts "echo" ancient images and practices, rather than confirm direct survivals.

In conclusion, four-hundred pages of this solidly presented, thoughtful narrative (given the sheer mass of material to sift through and present for both a scholarly and a mainstream audience, no small feat; my only regrets are too few maps and few typos) repeat a characteristic humility for this affable yet eminent scholar of paganism. This is a big book on a vast subject, presented intelligently. It reminds us of how quickly academic "proof" can shift, and the twenty-odd years since his 1991 study reveal how technology and our own mentalities filter into dim corners of the past. Hutton, shedding light into passage tombs, beheaded skeletons, and runic scratches, stays sober but spirited as he takes us through thousands of years of enigmatic, jumbled remains. While "The Quest for...." and "In Search of..." appeal to those who speculate as if ancient mysteries can be resolved at last, Dr. Hutton knows better. He reminds us of "how much we cannot know" as "an opportunity and a strength" rather than as an embarrassment or a hardship" when examining the "common resource" of evidence.
(5-5-14 Amazon US and to PopMatters